Today's review is a show readily available for download at the Live Music Archive, 7/29/88, at the Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterey California. This was the first of a three show run at Laguna Seca, and in my opinion the best of the three. I chose this show mainly because of the extremely high quality of the recording currently available at the LMA. It sounds to me to be a mislabelled soundboard or soundboard/audience matrix recording, but I suppose it's possible that its just a phenomenal audience recording. If this is the case, it's one of the best sounding audience recordings I have ever heard. I'll definitely be sending this over to Born Again Ben because he somehow missed this clearly worthy addition to his great list of best auds at the archive.
One small note about the LMA: If you haven't been over there recently, you'll notice next time you visit that they have undertaken a major overhaul of their site. All the Grateful Dead has been moved over to its own section, and they have altered the way that you search and access shows. You can still search by year, but it's not as intuitive as before, and each search results in a long list of shows that is nowhere nearly as easy to navigate as it was before. There's a new forum just for discussion of the Dead, which I'm sure is a great relief to all the other posters at the LMA that have no interest in GD. The coolest addition is a little java jukebox on the page of every show that lets you easily stream from any song in the show. This is very cool, and while it doesn't exactly lessen the blow of losing download access to all the great soundboard recordings, it is a real nice feature none the less. It also allows me to easily listen to the show while I write these reviews, a nice way to record my impressions on the fly. I'm not a big fan of these changes overall, but I get the feeling this is a work in progress and hopefully the interface will continue to improve as time goes on. Now on to the review:
This was one of only five times the Dead played at Laguna Seca Raceway. This must have been a fantastic place to see a show, because of the gorgeous surroundings and the campgrounds right on site at the venue. According to a post on the LMA, several Deadheads camped on the grounds of a U.S. Army rifle range nearby the venue, resulting in the Dead being banned from playing there ever again. Definitely a great loss.
This show was in the middle of an extremely prolific period for the Dead. Jerry was healthy and strong, and Brent was really coming into his own, adding so much to each and every show. The first set opened with a nice, laid back Iko Iko, featuring some interesting sound effects on Jerry's vocals and great organ fills and solos from Brent. This is a nice, always unexpected opener and is a good indicator of some unusual song selection for the show ahead.
Bobby gives us a Walkin' Blues next, nothing too special here.
Jerry picks up the mike again for Candyman, always a treat. He mixes up some lyrics in the first verse but recovers nicely. Nice harmonies on the refrain. The first lead break is really nice. Jerry's vocals are strong here early in the show. The song builds up to a pretty powerful crescendo at the last verse, overall a great version.
Next song is Bob Dylan's Queen Jane Approximately, one of my favorites in this position from Bobby Weir. I was always so happy so see this instead of those cowboy double shots we get so often here. Nice harmonies from Jerry and Brent, and some great support solos from those two as well.
Jerry's up again next with Althea. A few more confused lyrics in the first verse, and a flaw in the recording cuts out a bit here, not too bad though. Great soloing after the bridge is the highlight here.
Brent takes over with an early version of one of my favorites of his original tunes, Blow Away. This is definitely an early version, only the fourth time played, with none of the backup vocals from the rest of the band that really added alot to this song. It's interesting to hear, though, and shows how this song evolved and really improved over the next couple of years. Phil comments after this song how the band seems to take longer in between songs than they used to and gets a rise out of the crowd.
Cassidy is next, pretty standard version here. This is just a great song, and I really never got tired of hearing it. Always a nice opportunity for Phil and Jerry to take off after the "faring thee well now" verse, and it never gets old listening to the whole band come back from the outer reaches to join together in unison for "flight of the seabirds." Probably in my top five favorite Bob Weir tunes of all time.
Deal closes the first set, which was always a crowd pleaser. Nice long high energy jam after the verses to end the set. Overall, while not a killer first set, definitely nothing to complain about.
Set two picks things up significantly. It opens up with a nice leisurely paced China Cat Sunflower. Jerry sounds good vocally and as usual for this song, there's some real fine interplay between his and Bobby's guitar work. There's a nice long jam at the end of verse three that sounds like a leisurely jaunt into the standard Rider, but tonight Jerry has other plans. He noodles for a bit before blowing everyones mind and smoothly transitioning into Crazy Fingers! The band is right with him and it's a really nice version. The vocals are very strong, and while there's really no jamming, it's still really sweet considering what a surprise it is for everyone. After this great diversion from tradition the band transitions right back into the I Know You Rider jam and into the song. It's such a refreshing change and it really is a shame that the boys didn't mix up this classic pairing more often. This kind of surprise is a great example of why seeing the Grateful Dead was always such a fantastic experience for me. There always was the potential for some crazy magic flying in out of left field at any given show, and for me, more often than not, the boys would deliver.
The set doesn't slow down as they go right from Rider into one of the best versions of Playin' In the Band since the truly amazing versions from 1972. This Playin' is so good it is featured on the Grateful Dead box set retrospective "So Many Roads." Brent and Bobby sing together and their interplay is really wonderful here. The instrumental is superb, with creative and imaginative soloing from Phil and Jerry following the verses. The fun continues as the jam takes off into some serious weirdness, before coalescing back into the reprise and transitioning into Drums>Space, which contains some nice easy going jamming along with the usual explosive moments of terror.
Jerry brings us out of space with one of my all time favorites, The Wheel. Something unusual about this tune: The Wheel, in my opinion, is one of the few songs I think that Jerry did better in the recording studio than in most live versions. The intro to this song, on Jerry's first solo album "Garcia," is probably my favorite guitar work ever done on any recording. Just hauntingly beautiful and melodic. It's also featured during the animation sequence of the Grateful Dead Movie. The version from this show is practically flawless, but I've yet to hear a live version that captures the magic of that studio release. There's a couple from 1976 that come close...
Phil and Brent take control of the mike with a pretty rocking Gimmie Some Lovin'. Great guitar jams, organ music, and some serious Phil bombs highlight this tune.
Jerry graces us with a rarity for the next tune, Believe It Or Not. This was played only seven times by the Dead. I was lucky enough to catch two of them live, in Hamilton Ontario 3/22/90 (a phenomenal show, a classic, deserving of its own review sometime soon), and in my hometown of Philly on 9/9/88. This song always reminds me of the JGB tune Gomorrah, I guess because of the signature little guitar run after each verse that is pretty similar. I think Gomorrah's a better song, in general. This version is as good as any of the few we saw, flawless but just not a lot to this tune in my opinion.
Sugar Magnolia ends the second set. Bobby sounds tentative and a bit off here. He actually stops singing during verse two and has Jerry and Brent's harmonies finish the verse. Maybe he was having equipment or mike problems. Jerry and Brent are all over this tune tonight, but this is not one of the better Sugar Mags. Nothing really wrong with it, just doesn't take off the way this song sometimes does. The jam at the end is fine, and maybe I'd get a better feel of how the crowd was into this tune on a recording that featured the audience a bit more, but what we have here is basically a routine performance of the tune to close the set.
The band encores with Jerry's Black Muddy River. Nice version, not much different than any other one. Jerry sounds a bit tired here, but it's been a long, hot night. This was a great song, consistently effective and evocative. Not my favorite encore, I agree with Phil when he expressed the sentiment in his autobiography that this tune was kind of a bummer to end a show with.
And that's all for now, another Retroreview comes to a close. Check out the link at the beginning of the review to head to the Live Music Archive for a downloadable copy of this great show.